Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Theme of Man and the Natural World
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the greenness of the Green Knight, along with the wildness of his dwelling place, probably represents his connection to the natural world. The wilderness through which Gawain rides as he departs from Arthur’s court, and later to the Green Chapel, present a stark contrast between the civilized world of Arthur and Bertilak’s courts. Whereas this civilized world is one ruled by codes of chivalry and love, the natural world is a more chaotic place where the animal instinct for survival dominates.
Nevertheless, as the hunting scenes in the poem demonstrate, men attempt to dominate and impose rituals and rules over even this world. Characters battle with the natural world constantly. The poem pits Gawain against the natural passing of the seasons, cold, wintry weather, and his natural urges for sex and survival.
Yet in the end, the characters in the poem who appear to be most in conflict with the natural world because of their strict adherence to civilization’s codes of conduct prove to have more than a little of the animal in their natures. This is true of both Sir Gawain and Sir Bertilak. Sir Bertilak, for example, is also the Green Knight. Sir Gawain, on the other hand, allows his animal instinct for survival to win out over his code of knightly honor. Both of these characters show that the sharp divide between man and the natural world may be more illusion than reality.
Questions About Man and the Natural World
- Which characters in the poem are most closely connected to the natural world? How?
- Which characters in the poem are most closely connected to civilization (in contrast to the natural world)? How?
- How does Sir Gawain and the Green Knight portray the wilderness outside of the dwellings of Arthur and Bertilak? What does this portrayal reveal about the meaning and importance of Arthur’s court and Bertilak’s castle?
- What do the hunting scenes reveal about man’s relationship to the natural world in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?
- How does the Green Knight’s test force Gawain to acknowledge his connection to the animal world? In what other ways does the poem connect Gawain to the animal world?
Chew on This
The hunting scenes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight emphasize men’s attempts to dominate and impose order upon the natural world.
The character of the Green Knight represents the intertwining of the animal and the human in mankind’s nature.